Make no mistake: The Celtics’ 97-81 loss to the Bulls falls on Rajon Rondo ‘s shoulders.
To say he got outplayed by Derrick Rose  is like saying the seas got a little choppy during “The Perfect Storm.” Rose obliterated Rondo, tying a neat little bow around his NBA Most Valuable Player trophy and effectively clinching the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in the process.
The box score tells you plenty. Rose outscored Rondo by 23 points on just six more shots. He got to the free-throw line seven more times (making nine more foul shots). He knocked down as many 3-pointers on Thursday night as Rondo has totaled in his last 33 games. He recorded more steals than the league’s second-best theft. He produced more assists than a guy who had averaged 3.3 more dimes per game. And the most damning statistic: In terms of plus/minus, Rose (+24) owned a 38-point edge over Rondo (-14).
But the box score doesn’t tell the entire story. Offensively, Rose blew by Rondo at will, wreaking havoc on the league’s best defense. Kevin Garnett  and another Celtics defender constantly provided help, leaving Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah  and just about every other Bulls big wide open on the weakside to put back rare Rose misses.
Remember when Rose stormed by Rondo and lost the ball underneath the basket, only to fire the ball out to Luol Deng for a wide open 3-pointer to put the Bulls up, 44-37? Those are the kinds of things that happen when a point guard walks into the lane as easily as my mother walks along Bay Lane. And those are the kinds of things that Rondo failed to do for the Celtics all night.
You wonder why Keith friggin’ Bogans played Ray Allen  to a standstill, and then you realize that Rondo failed to create open shots for the game’s greatest shooter. When’s the last time the Big Three were all held to 15 points or fewer? Oh, that’s right, it was an awful 93-77 loss to the Rockets on March 18, when Rondo (4 points, 6 assists) got torched by Kyle Lowry  (20 points, 9 assists).
It’s fairly simple: When the Celtics have more assists than their opponent, they’re 50-11; when they don’t, they’re 4-13. And who’s “the head of the monster” who steers the C’s ship, as Allen said on Mut & Merloni? That’s right, Rondo.
If Rondo succeeds, the Celtics succeed. When he produces 10 or more assists, the Celtics are 35-6, and that .854 winning percentage only climbs higher as his assist totals sore. When Rondo gets to 13 assists, the Celtics are 13-2 (an .867 winning percentage). In the 10 games he’s reached 16 assists, the C’s are a perfect 10-0.
Likewise, when Rondo fails, so too do the Celtics. If he doesn’t reach double-digit assists, the Celtics are 11-14. And they’re 3-6 when he’s held to six or fewer assists, as he was against the Bulls on Thursday night.
In his last meeting with each of the game’s four other great young point guards — Rose, Chris Paul , Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook  — Rondo has been outplayed all four times, averaging 8.0 points and 6.8 assists while finishing 1-3 against them. Meanwhile, those four produced 20.3 points and 9.5 assists per game against him.
Can Rondo return to the guy who averaged 13.8 assists in 20 games before suffering an ankle injury in December? Or will it take the offseason for him to recover from the slew of injuries he’s suffered this season? Time will tell, but the fact that Celtics coach Doc Rivers  left Delonte West  on the floor for the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s loss certainly wasn’t a good sign.
KEVIN GARNETT: ‘WE GOT OUR ASS KICKED’
In the postgame aftermath, nobody was more straightforward than Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. Here are the highlights from his discussion with the Chicago Sun-Times :
- “We just didn’t play with the right spirit tonight. We didn’t play with no fight in the second half. You know, we’re a better team than this. One thing in the postseason, we have to get some more fight in us as a team.”
- “Tonight was frustrating, the second half was even more frustrating. We are going to find out where we are these last couple of games. But we have to be better than this. There is no way we can come out and put an effort like this in a game this big.”
- “Let’s keep it real. We got our ass kicked tonight.”
DERRICK ROSE: ‘WE KNOW WE CAN BEAT THEM’
Three of the NBA’s best columnists attended what was supposed to be a playoff atmosphere between the Celtics and Bulls in Chicago. Instead, it turned into a laundry list of concerns about the defending Eastern Conference champions. Here’s an appetizer of each column before you delve into the main courses:
- Derrick Rose told  Yahoo! Sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, Kendrick Perkins  “was tough. … He was really tough to go around. … They’re different.” And then he came right out and pronounced, “We know we can beat them.” Ouch.
- Rajon Rondo told  CBS Sports columnist Ken Berger, the Celtics are “a completely different team. We’re not going to be able to turn it on like we did last year, and even last year we came up short. These types of games, we have to find a way to win. It’s a roller coaster, and right now, we’re going back down again.”
- Doc Rivers told  Sports Illustrated columnist Chris Mannix, “When you see the Bulls, I think you see Thibs. You see his toughness. Thibs is in every single play. The players buy into it. You can see it’s not phony.”
For anybody who believes the loss to the Bulls can be attributed to the absence of Perkins, consider the following points (not including how well I thought Jermaine O’Neal  played defensively, despite not grabbing a rebound):
- 1. As Paul Flannery noted in his Three-Pointer , “What would Perkins have done to help them get on track offensively? That was where the real problems were to be found for the Celtics, who shot just 38 percent and made only 12-of-38 shots in the entire second half.
- 2. Yes, the Celtics got outscored 44-22 in the paint. But the three guys Perkins would’ve been responsible for — centers Joakim Noah, Kurt Thomas  and Omer Asik — combined for four points (two of which came in the paint). Meanwhile, Rose, Deng and Carlos Boozer all scored 10-plus points in the paint. Those are the defensive assignments of Rondo, Pierce and Garnett, and they’ve got to take responsibility for that lack of toughness.